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Posts Tagged ‘Steeplebush’

This is the time of year when our roadsides begin to look like Monet paintings. Purple loosestrife and goldenrod dominated this one, but the pink of Joe Pye weed and the white of asters and boneset often help brighten scenes like these.

There are enough different goldenrods (over a hundred it is said) which look enough alike to convince me that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to identify them all, but some are quite easy to identify.  One of the easiest is gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis).  It’s one of the first to bloom and its flower heads always look like they have been in a strong wind that blew them over to one side of the stem. The heavy flower heads also bend the stem so the plant almost always leans at an angle like those shown.

I’ve included this shot of a field full of many kinds of goldenrod for those who haven’t ever seen one. Sights like this were common when I was a boy but are getting harder to find now, mostly because of invasion by purple loosestrife. The Native American Chippewa tribe called goldenrod “sun medicine” and used it to treat fevers, ulcers, and boils. Many other tribes also used it medicinally.

After years of trial and error Thomas Edison found goldenrod to be the best domestic source of natural rubber and bred a plant that grew to twelve feet tall and contained about twelve percent rubber in its leaves. Henry Ford and George Washington Carver developed a process to make rubber from goldenrod on an industrial scale during World War II and the USDA took over the project until synthetic rubber was discovered a short time later.

I’ve been surprised to find over the past couple of years how some of the flowers that I love to see, like the tiny little forked blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) above, have somehow found their way into my yard. Since I haven’t done anything to encourage it how they get here is a mystery, but the list gets longer each summer. It’s such a pleasure to be able to see them each day without having to go and look for them, and I hope the trend continues.

Eastern forked blue curls have beautiful flowers that might make a half inch across on a good day and the entire plant barely reaches ankle high, so it’s a challenging plant to photograph. One unusual thing about the flower other than its unique beauty, is its four long, arching stamens that dust bees with pollen when they land on its lower lip. This plant is an annual that grows new from seed each year. It seems to like sandy soil and I find it growing along river banks and sometimes roadsides, and now in my own yard.

I know of only one place to find field milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) and it is always worth the walk to see them.  The flowers are very beautiful and unusual enough to make you want to sit beside them for a while and study them, and that’s just what I often do. I find them growing in full sun in sandy loam.

On field milkwort flowers what look like petals arranged on a central stem are actually individual flowers packed into a raceme no bigger than the end of an average index finger. Each tiny overlapping flower has two large sepals, three small sepals, and three small petals that form a narrow tube. Several different kinds of bees help pollinate this plant. Its flowers can be white, purple, pink, or green and I’ve noticed that the color can vary considerably from plant to plant.

Tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) can get very tall and often towers over my head. A cluster of small, pencil eraser sized, blue flowers sits at the tip of the long stem. This plant is very similar to the wild lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) which bears yellow flowers. Both plants were used medicinally by Native Americans but they should only be used by those who know them well, because it is said that they can cause death by cardiac paralysis.

The flowers of tall blue lettuce can be white, deep blue, or ice blue. The deep blue ones are always the hardest to find but also the most beautiful and worth the effort. I haven’t seen a single one this year though.

I have trouble seeing red against green due to colorblindness and that’s why you don’t see much red in these posts, but these bee balm blossoms stood high enough above the surrounding foliage to be clearly visible. The name bee balm comes from the way the juice from its crushed leaves will soothe a bee sting. Our native scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) is also called Oswego tea, because the leaves were used to make tea by the Native American Oswego tribe of New York. Early settlers also used the plant for tea when they ran out of the real thing. It’s a beautiful flower that I’m always happy to see. Hummingbirds and butterflies love it too and will come from all over to sip its nectar.

There are 2 or 3 small lobelias with small blue / purple flowers that grow here, but though the flowers look alike the plants themselves have very different growth habits, and that makes them easy to identify. This lobelia is called Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata) and the small flowers are about 1/3 of an inch long. It is the only lobelia with calyxes that inflate after the flowers have fallen and to identify it I just look for the inflated seedpods.

Indian tobacco gets its name from the way its inflated seed pods resemble the smoking material pouches that Native Americans carried. The inflata part of its scientific name also comes from these inflated pods. The pods form so quickly that they can usually be found on the lower part of the stem while the upper part is still flowering. Though Native Americans used this and other lobelias to treat asthma and other breathing difficulties they knew how to use what we don’t, and today the plants are considered toxic. They can make you very sick and too much can kill.

Common burdock (Arctium minus) must have come to this country very early, probably tangled in a horse or cow’s tail, because it was noted as being widespread in 1663. In fact it was so common then that some who came later wrote that it was native. Its spread across the country from New England to the Pacific took about 270 years, because the Native Americans of western Washington State said it had been recently introduced there in the 1930s.  Burdock’s tubular purple flowers are densely packed into round prickly flower heads, but though many are familiar with the flower heads few seem to ever notice the flowers. The examples in the above photo had just opened. When fully open long white styles grow from the dark purple anthers. In this flower head only the lower blossom shows the styles.

Arrowleaf tearthumb (Polygonum sagittatum) is in the smartweed family, which gets its common name from the way your tongue will smart if you eat its peppery parts. Though the flower buds in this family of plants seem like they never open they do, sort of. They look like they only open about halfway though and I find the buds as pretty as the blossoms. This plant is a kind of rambler / sprawler that winds its way over nearby plants so it can get as much sunshine as possible.

It’s easy to see how the plant came by the arrowleaf part of its common name.

Tearthumb got that name because it will indeed tear your thumb or any other body part that comes into contact with it. Many a gardener has regretted trying to pull it up without gloves on, because when the small but sharp barbs (prickles, botanically) along its stems slip through your hand they act like a saw and make you sorry that you ever touched it. The plant uses these prickles for support when it climbs over other plants, and they work well. Sometimes the stems and prickles are red but in this example they were green. Tearthumb is considered a wetland indicator because it likes to grow in very moist to wet soil. I almost always find it near water, often blooming quite late in summer.

Steeple bush (Spirea tomentose) seems more herb than shrub to me but it’s in the spirea family of many shrubs. Sometimes it gets confused with meadowsweet (Spirea alba) but that plant is a very woody shrub with white flowers in flower heads that aren’t as long and pointed as these are. A dense coat of white wooly hairs covers the stem and the leaf undersides of steeple bush, and that’s where the tomentose part of the scientific name comes from. It means “covered with densely matted woolly hairs.” I almost always find this plant at the water’s edge.

Five petaled, pink steeplebush flowers are about 1/16 of an inch wide and loaded with 5 pistils and many stamens, which is what often gives flowers in the spirea family a fuzzy appearance. Many different butterflies love these flowers. Native Americans used the plant medicinally in much the same way that we would use aspirin.

Pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum) usually grows in ankle deep water at pond edges with the lower stem submerged so it’s hard to see the entire plant, but last year’s drought let me see that each plant had a tiny tuft of sword shaped leaves at the base of the stem. The stem has a twist to it and has 7 ridges, and because of that some call it seven angle pipewort.

The plants grow in the mud and send up a slender stalk that is topped by a quarter inch diameter flower head made up of very tiny white, cottony flowers. For the first time since I’ve been photographing the plant I was able to see what look like black stamens on this example. Eriocaulon, the first part of pipewort’s scientific name, comes from the Greek erion, meaning wool, and kaulos, meaning plant stem. The second part of the scientific name, aquaticum, is Latin for a plant that grows in water, so what you have is a wool-topped stem growing in water, which of course is exactly what pipewort looks like. Pipewort is wind pollinated. It is also called hat pins, for obvious reasons.

Last year swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) started blossoming at the end of June and this year it waited until the end of July, a full month’s difference. Of course I started checking the two plants I know of at the end of June and have been waiting impatiently ever since to see this, in my opinion the most beautiful of all the milkweeds. Certain flowers can absorb me, and this is one of them. It’s one that I can sit and look at without thinking or caring about much of anything else for a time.

Flowers have an expression of countenance as much as men and animals. Some seem to smile; some have a sad expression; some are pensive and diffident; others again are plain, honest and upright, like the broad-faced sunflower and the hollyhock. ~Henry Ward Beecher

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1. Summer Flowers

This is the time of year that our roadside landscapes begin to look like a Monet painting. Right now purple loosestrife dominates with sprinkles of goldenrod here and there. Soon we’ll see the pink of Joe Pye weed and the white of asters and boneset.

2. Groundnut aka Apios americana

The chocolaty brown flowers of the groundnut (Apias Americana) are among the most unusual flowers seen at this time of year. They are borne on a vine that twines its way among other sunny meadow plants. This plant is also called potato bean because of the walnut sized, edible tubers that grow along its underground stem. They are said to taste like turnips and were a favorite of Native Americans.

3. Spotted Touch Me Not

I tried to get a bee’s eye view looking into a spotted touch me not blossom (Impatiens capensis.) When I saw the photo I could see that I had failed that but I was surprised when I saw so much red on the lip of the blossom. It looked like candle wax had dripped on it. This plant gets its common name from the way its seed pods snap and release the seeds when touched. Other names include orange Jewelweed, common jewelweed, spotted jewelweed, and orange balsam.  The name “jewelweed” comes from the way that raindrops sparkle on its wax coated leaves.

4. Showy Tick Trefoil

Showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense) is a legume in the bean family. This plant gets part of its common name from the little barbed hairs that cover the seed pods and make them stick to clothing like ticks. The “showy” part of its common name comes from the way that so many of its small pink flowers bloom at once. As the plant sets seeds its erect stems bend lower to the ground so the barbed seed pods can catch in the fur of passing animals.

5. Gray Goldenrod

Gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) always looks like it has been in a strong wind with all of its flowers blown over to one side of the stem, but this is the way it grows naturally. It is one of the earliest blooming goldenrods, coming along right after early goldenrod (Solidago juncea.) It can be seen leaning out of the growth at the edge of forests, reaching for the sun.

6. Joe Pye Weed

I think our native Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) is at its most colorful when it is in bud, just before it blooms. There are many varieties of Joe Pye weed and some are sold in garden centers. They can get up to 7 feet tall and often tower over other plants. They are named after Joe Pye, who the latest research says was a Mohegan sachem (chief) that lived in western Massachusetts and saved early European settlers from typhus by brewing a tea made from this plant. Joseph Pye was educated by Samson Occam, himself a Mohegan herbalist and Christian convert who kept an extensive diary.

7. Yellow Toadflax

Yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) was imported from Europe in the mid-1800s as an ornamental and, as the all too familiar story goes, escaped cultivation to become a noxious weed. It’s a pretty weed though, and in this area isn’t as prevalent as our native blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis.) Blue toadflax seems to be having a banner year. I’ve never seen so much of it, or seen it bloom for so long. Yellow toadflax is very similar to Dalmatian toadflax (Linaria dalmatica,) another import, but Dalmatian toadflax has broad, heart-shaped leaves and yellow toadflax has long, narrow leaves.

8. Tall Blue lettuce

Tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) is an odd plant that can reach 10 feet tall in some cases, with a cluster of small, pencil eraser sized, light blue flowers at the tip of the long stem. I always wonder why the plant needs such a tall stem and such large leaves if it is only going to produce tiny flowers, but that’s nature-it always leaves me guessing. This plant is very similar to wild lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) which bears yellow flowers. Both plants were used medicinally by Native Americans.

9. Hedge Bindweed

When I was a young boy the only hedge bindweed flowers (Calystegia sepium) that I saw had simple white flowers, but over the last few years I’m seeing more with pink and white bi-colored flowers. Each flower usually only lasts for a day, so you’ve got to be quick with the camera if you see one that you like. Hedge bindweed is another plant that was introduced from Europe. As invasive as it is, it isn’t as bad as field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis,) which is close to impossible to eradicate. Bind weeds are so hard to get rid of because they are perennials, while true morning glories (Ipomoea) are annuals.

 10. Steeple Bush

Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) gets its common name from the shape of its flower clusters. The only other shrub that blooms at the same time and has similar shaped flower clusters is meadowsweet (Spiraea alba,) but it has white flowers. It’s easy to see that steeplebush is related to the Japanese spireas that are used in gardens; the flowers look much the same. Steeplebush likes to be near water and can be found at pond and stream edges. Native Americans used tea made from the plant’s leaves as a medicine.

11. Red Clover 2

There were red clover plants (Trifolium pretense) growing in the shade all along the edge of a field, but this single flower head had a ray of sun pointing right at it, so of course I had to see what made it so special. As I knelt before it to take its photo I could see that it was such a beautiful thing that it was no wonder the sun had chosen to illuminate it.

12. Field Milkwort

On field milkwort plants (Polygala sanguinea) what look like petals arranged on a central stem are actually individual flowers packed into a raceme no bigger than the end of an average index finger. Each tiny overlapping flower has two large sepals, three small sepals, and three small petals that form a narrow tube. Several different kinds of bees help pollinate this plant. Its flowers can be white, purple, pink, or green.

13. Club Spur Orchid

Long time readers of this blog know that part of the reason I spend so much time walking through the woods is because I’m hoping to find orchids. They don’t just grow along the sides of the road here like they do in England and Scotland; here you have to search long and hard to find them, and if I’m lucky I find one new one each year. This year’s find is the northern club spur orchid (Platanthera clavellata v. Ophioglossoides) pictured above.

14. Club Spur Orchid

The northern club spur orchid will most likely never win a blue ribbon at any flower shows but it is a native orchid and I was very happy to find it. This plant has a single leaf and a single flower stalk that grows to about 4 inches tall. The flowers are tiny-no bigger than a pencil eraser-and have long, curved nectar spurs. If the nectar doesn’t work and insects don’t pollinate the flowers the plant can self-pollinate. Its seeds are like dust and are carried by the wind. One unusual thing about the flowers is the slight twist they have in relation to the stem. It is one of the smallest Platanthera species in the northeastern U.S. and likes to grow in wet woods and bogs.

15. Where The Orchids Grow

I’ve tried off and on for years to show you an accurate depiction of what the deep woods of New Hampshire look like but have rejected every attempt. Finally, this photo that I took to lead me back to the northern club spur orchids is the one that shows them best. An old tree fell and opened a gap in the canopy that let in a little sunlight, and that’s probably why the orchids chose to grow here. The forest is a quiet, peaceful place where you can hear the true music of life played as it has been for millions of years.

I did find Calypso [orchids] — but only once, far in the depths of the very wildest of Canadian dark woods, near those high, cold, moss-covered swamps. I felt as if I were in the presence of superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy. ~John Muir

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Here’s a small sample of what is blooming here now.

1. Bifid Hemp Nettle

Bifid hemp nettle (Galeopsis bifida) has a small but beautiful flower that always reminds me of heal all (Prunella vulgaris). This entire plant, including the flowers, is covered with hairs and the sepals end in points that can be sharp. These sharp points catch on animal fur or clothing and spread the seeds far and wide. Hemp nettle looks a lot like a tall mint plant because it is in the mint family.

 2. Forget Me Nots

Forget me nots (Myosotis) are still blooming on the river banks.  It’s a beautiful little weed that gets its scientific name Myosotis from the way the leaves resemble mouse ears.

 3. Enchanter's Nightshade

Though it looks like the flowers of enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) have four petals there are really only two. There are also two sepals and two stamens, with a single style. The ovaries that form at the base of the flowers have tiny barbed hairs, and that means they stick to just about anything. This plant gets its scientific name Circaea from Circa, an enchantress in Homer’s Odyssey with a fondness for turning men into swine. It’s a good story but unfortunately the plant is a native of North America, so Homer most likely never saw it.

4. Liatrus Blossoms

I’ve always know native liatris, often called blazing star, as a garden plant even though it is a native wildflower common to our prairies. I found this one growing on the side of a road and it’s the first one I’ve ever seen growing naturally. There are 37 different species of liatris, and I’m not sure which one this is.

5. Slender Fragrant Goldenrod aka Euthamia tenuifolia

Our native slender fragrant goldenrod (Euthamia tenuifolia) is my favorite goldenrod because of its scent. This plant can be confused with lance leaved goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), but it has a single vein in the center of each leaf and lance leaved goldenrod has 3 to 5 veins. It’s that time of year when goldenrod takes the blame for causing hay fever, when in fact ragweed is the culprit. Goldenrod pollen is much too sticky and heavy to ever become airborne, so it is impossible for it to get in noses that way.

6. Spotted jewel Weed aka Impatiens capensis

I keep hoping to find yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) but all I find is spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). It isn’t that I don’t like the spotted variety; it’s just that it is one of the first plants I learned to identify so I’ve had a long time to get to know it. The yellow variety I’ve seen maybe 3 times. This native plant is also called orange balsam and touch me not. Hummingbirds love these flowers.

7. Spotted jewel Weed

It’s easier to see why it’s called spotted jewel weed from the side. These spots are what attract pollinators. The curved nectar spur at the back of the flower can also be seen. It can only be reached by pollinators with long tongues, like butterflies and hummingbirds.

 8. Raindrops on Jewelweed

Jewel weed leaves have a waxy coating that makes rain bead up into drops. When these drops sparkle in the sun they look like jewels, and that’s where the name jewel weed comes from.

9. Pink Steeple Bush

Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) is easy to recognize because of the way its erect stems are unbranched, with steeple shaped flower clusters at their ends. They are usually found near water.  This native plant is available commercially and is an excellent choice for butterfly gardens. Native Americans used a tea made from steeplebush leaves for easing childbirth.

 10. Dwarf Dandelion aka Krigia virginica

 In my opinion it is the leaves more than the flowers that make native dwarf dandelions (Krigia virginica) resemble regular dandelions. Spring leaves look quite different, but as the season progresses they look like hairy, miniature version of the dandelion leaves that we’re all familiar with. It also has seed heads that are similar to common dandelion but they’re much smaller and more brown than gray. This native likes full sun and dry, sandy soil.

11. Whorled Wood Aster aka Oclemena acuminata 2

Native whorled wood aster (Oclemena acuminate) is also called sharp leaved aster because of the way the leaves come to a sharp point. The common name whorled aster comes by way of the leaves appearing to grow in a whorl but it isn’t a true whorl. This is one of those plants that like to grow at the edge of woodland. Pearly crescent butterflies love this plant, so it is a good addition to a butterfly garden.

12. Tall Blue Lettuce

The flowers of tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) are usually very pale blue so I was surprised by the deep color of these. The flowers grow in a cluster at the top of a plant that can reach 10 feet tall under the right conditions. This plant is easily confused with wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) when it isn’t blossoming but its leaves are hairy while wild lettuce leaves are not. I’m not sure what the red eyed insect trying to hide behind the upper flower is.

13. Lettuce

The pale yellow flowers of tall lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) are often tinted by red or pink on their edges. This is another native lettuce that can reach 10 feet tall with clusters of small, 1/4 inch flowers at the top of the stalks. The leaves of this plant can be highly variable in their shape, with even leaves on the same plant looking different from each other.  Native Americans used this plant medicinally. The milky white sap contains lactucarium and is still used in medicines today.

14. Tall Rattlesnake Root aka Prenanthes trifoliata

The flowers of tall rattlesnake root (Prenanthes trifoliate) which are shown in the photo resemble those of tall white lettuce (Prenanthes altissima) but the leaves of the rattlesnake root are deeply divided into 3 parts while the lettuce leaves aren’t. It also has a waxy, reddish stem which helps in identification. Its flowers can be white or pinkish. This plant is also called gall of the earth because of how bitter the root tastes. These roots were once made into a very bitter tonic that was used to (allegedly) cure snake bites and that’s where its other common name comes from.

Stretching his hand up to reach the stars, too often man forgets the flowers at his feet. ~Jeremy Bentham

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